On Her Master’s Secret Service, Masters and Mercenaries Book 4

Her submission fulfilled her

When Eve St. James married Alex McKay, she had her whole life ahead of her. They were the FBI’s golden couple by day, but by night Eve gave herself over to her husband’s world of Dominance and submission filled with pleasures she came to crave.

His betrayal destroyed her

Worried for her safety, Alex left Eve behind to tackle a dangerous mission. But Alex never suspected that Eve was the real target and her security is destroyed by a madman. By the time he rescues her, his wife has been changed forever.

But when her life is in danger, he is her only hope

Unable to heal the damage, Alex and Eve are still trapped together in a cycle of pleasure and misery that even their divorce cannot sever. But when a threat from Eve’s past resurfaces, Alex will stop at nothing to save her life and reclaim her heart.

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Reviews

As I've come to expect from Lexi Blake, the story was intensely gripping, extremely emotional and very sexy. Whenever I get a Lexi Blake novel, I sit back, relax and enjoy the ride because I know I am going to be thoroughly entertained. ~ Rho, The Romance Reviews, http://erotic.theromancereviews.com

I’m not kidding about this story being intense. Not only are you not going to want to put it down, but you’re going to have to because you’ll need a break from the emotions. ~ “Top Pick,” Terri, Night Owl Reviews, www.nightowlreviews.com

The story is so well plotted out and Ms. Blake gives some awesome clues that I had me guessing some major secrets early on, and I was hooked so deeply that I had to keep reading just to find out if I was right. She really has pulled off one of the coolest and biggest secrets I have ever read in a series, and she does so beautifully I might add. ~ Sheri, For The Love Of Bookends, loveofbookends.blogspot.com

By the time On Her Master’s Secret Service reached it’s highly satisfying conclusion, I was emotionally wrung out. I truly believe that this is Ms. Blake’s best book to date. On Her Master’s Secret Service has it all – believable characters that I care about, a well- written plot filled with passion and danger, and enough humor to keep you grounded between bouts of crying. ~ Robin, Sizzling Hot Books, sizzlinghotbooks.com

On Her Master's Secret Service is a brilliant addition to the Masters and Mercenaries series! This one hit the spot as well as leaving me wanting more, more, MORE! ~ Shayna, Shayna Renee’s Spicy Reads, shaynareneesspicyreads

…this book was truly mesmerizing providing both a suspense/action storyline with  intense BDSM action. ~ “Smokin Hot Read,” Penelope, kinkybookreviews.com

Excerpt

Chapter One

Dallas, Texas

Present Day

Alex McKay felt his stomach churn as he stared at the projection in front of him.

“Do you know how dangerous this could be?” Ian Taggart asked.

The conference room was quiet. Not one sliver of early morning light made it past the tightly drawn shades. The sun was coming up. He knew it because of the time, but in the dark conference room, it still felt like night, utterly dark, the only illumination a series of slides that depicted his life in tragic photos.

He sighed and simply clicked to the next slide. The last thing he needed was Ian telling him how dangerous Michael Evans could be. He knew that up close and personally. Michael Evans had cost Alex McKay just about everything he cared about in the world. His job. His future. But most of all the fucker had cost Alex his wife. And that was why he was going to find him no matter the cost.

“The last time I had a source contact me, they believed Evans was in Argentina, but that was over a year ago. This is the first time he’s surfaced since then.” He kept his voice moderate, like he was just going over another Tuesday morning case file and not the most important events of his life.

Adam Miles slipped into the room, sliding into the seat to Alex’s left. “Is there a reason we’re having a meeting at six in the morning? I don’t think I should have to be awake before the sun is.”

Jake Dean rolled his eyes as he followed his partner. Jake and Adam always worked together, but then they pretty much did everything together—including their wife, Serena. “He’s bitching because I refused to let him wake up Serena this morning.”

“I don’t do well without a good-bye kiss,” Adam said, sulking a little.

Ian groaned, sitting back in his massive leather chair. Dressed for business, the early morning hours did not seem to faze Ian at all. Unlike Alex, who was still in sweat pants and a T-shirt, Ian had come into work in a designer suit. It would make most men look civilized, but Ian just looked like a well-dressed gangster, the kind who could kill a man and never even wrinkle his clothes. “Adam, dude, get out from behind Serena’s skirts.”

“I spend all my time trying to get into her skirts, boss,” Adam shot back.

“If you’re all done here, I would like to continue.” Alex really didn’t have time to sit and listen to how fucking happy Adam was. “Or we can just close this thing up right now and I can handle this on my own.”

“What crawled up Alex’s butt and died?” Jake asked in a whisper that absolutely everyone in the building could probably hear.

“Shut up, Jake.” Ian leaned forward. “Michael Evans seems to have surfaced.”

“Fuck.” Jake looked up, and even in the dim light of the predawn conference room, he could see the solidarity in Jake’s eyes. “Anything you need, man. We’re here. Where’s Li, by the way? Tell me he didn’t kill the English asshole?”

“Like he bloody well could.” Simon Weston was damn quiet. He’d slunk into the room without anyone noticing. As the newest member of the McKay-Taggart Security Service’s team, the former MI6 agent hadn’t much tried to fit in with anyone past Ian. Ian seemed to have taken the man under his wing despite the fact that Simon had nearly blown up their last assignment. He’d been fooled by Eli Nelson, and didn’t Alex know that feeling. Despite his surly attitude, Alex felt a bit of a kinship with Simon. He knew damn well what it was like to get his ass handed to him on an operation. “Liam had other plans this morning, and this is just a friendly little info share. I can fill him in later.”

He’d pointedly not invited Liam this morning, and he’d lucked out because this was Liam and Avery’s weekly breakfast with Eve. Liam and Eve had gotten close over the years, and she adored Li’s new wife, Avery. They were the perfect distraction. Eve usually came in early, but Tuesdays were spent at a local café.

“Who’s Michael Evans and why does everyone look like their best mate just got run over?” Simon asked. He stood in the back, not bothering with one of the four seats left.

Alex directed his attention to the projection on the wall. It was a picture of a man he knew far too well. “This is Michael Evans, thirty-seven. He’s a homegrown terrorist. He ran a small commune in the northern section of Idaho. No name. Just two hundred acres and a belief that the United States government has grown corrupt. I’ll admit, it’s not just the US government Evans has a problem with. It’s mostly all of society. The FBI didn’t pay much attention to him until we discovered his ties to jihadist leaders in Mexico. Between 2001 and 2005, Evans made over fifty trips to Central America. The CIA marked him as a potential stateside contact for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and other associated groups.”

Simon nodded. “Yeah, I remember him now. He was all over the news a couple of years back. I was actually in the States when he was arrested. He grew drugs on that land of his and funded small cells. They bombed low profile sites, if I remember correctly. I found it rather odd that they didn’t choose high value targets.”

“Evans considered them to be very high value targets. Allegedly, he was the money behind fifteen clinic bombings across the US,” Alex murmured. Evans had managed to kill doctors, nurses, and patients, most of whom had only walked into the clinic for routine exams, but they made Evans’s hit list because the clinics were government funded and offered family planning. “He also targeted domestic abuse shelters. He liked to set those on fire. Evans isn’t really big on women’s rights.”

“He specifically targeted clinics where women got routine care and could procure birth control. In twelve of the clinics he targeted, no abortion services were provided,” Ian continued. Ian knew the file as well as Alex. It was this very case that had brought Alex to Dallas to found the company with his best friend. Ian was a head case half the time, but Alex owed him everything, and that was his only reason for having this briefing. If it weren’t for Ian, he would be on his way to the meet site right now.

“What’s his motivation?” Jake asked. “I know the case files, but I never really understood what he wanted. Obviously he’s a misogynist pig, but terrorists usually have a point they’re trying to get across.”

“Evans is a deep believer that modern America has stripped men of all their god-given rights. He wants to go back to the times when a man owned everything. When a man had full rights to his property and could enforce his own laws on that property, and part of the property included a man’s wives. Yes, I said wives,” Alex explained. “He had several wives across the country. He killed one when she turned state’s witness against him. He left behind the corpse of another woman when he fled his Idaho compound. Wherever he is now, we should be prepared that he likely has a wife or two and he won’t hesitate to throw them in the line of fire.”

“Charming,” Adam muttered.

“Yeah, well, he’s no prince.” Alex clicked through to the next slide. It was the one of Evans being hauled in. Evans was smiling at the camera, his handsome face looking more like a movie matinee idol than a mass killer. Those good looks had brought him hoards of women who wrote to him in prison or did an enormous amount of his dirty work.

Evans is a charismatic killer, Eve had written. He uses charm to draw his victims in, but in the end, he can’t consider himself a winner unless he beats a male he considers of equal worth.

God, if he’d just listened to Eve. “Evans was placed in prison awaiting trial. He had excellent lawyers, naturally. They managed to push the trial out almost two years and to have Evans held at a medium security prison to await trial.”

“He escaped in a mattress, right?” Simon finally moved in, sitting down and starting to glance through the material in front of him.

“Yes, right before the state was set to present opening arguments. He had a long-term issue with his lungs. They were damaged from a fire in his childhood, and he was on oxygen therapy from time to time. He had a breathing episode, very likely faked or purposefully brought on, and, not only did the prison doctor give him a small oxygen tank, he prescribed new, allergen-free bedding. Almost two years to the day that he was arrested, Evans was smuggled out in the bedding. It had been hollowed out. One of his most loyal followers took his place in jail with a duplicated oxygen tank. Because of the mask over his face, no one noticed until almost twenty-four hours later, not even his cellmate. They took him in for questioning, but he wouldn’t say a thing. He’d been taken out of the cell at the time, so the authorities couldn’t link him to the escape. As far as we know, Evans joined his jihadist friends in Central America shortly thereafter.”

“You said the FBI arrested him? Don’t you mean you arrested him?” Simon asked, his icy blue eyes coming up from the file folder.

“Yes, I was the arresting agent.” He said the words through clenched teeth.

“You were the Special Agent in Charge? I believe that’s the local lingo,” Simon said. “How long after this case was it before you quit?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ian pronounced.

But Simon had a right to know. “I quit two months after Evans was arrested. That was five years ago. I packed up my life and I moved here. Ian and I started this company. Make no mistake. This is personal for me. This isn’t a payday, and anyone who doesn’t want to volunteer time should feel free to walk away. I’m not going to ask for much beyond some behind-the-scenes support, and even that will be in an informational fashion. I don’t need muscle on this one.”

He usually was the muscle.

Simon frowned, obviously unwilling to give up. “Why isn’t O’Donnell around? I can’t imagine he would willingly miss this meeting. Is he already working on the case? And where is our lovely shrink? I suspect she would be helpful in this case. She used to be in a behavioral analysis unit, correct? Did she work on the Evans case with you? Could we see her files on him?”

A tense silence filled the room. They were all perfectly valid questions, and Alex resented the shit out of them.

“Yes, Eve used to work with the BAU. She was a profiler, but she doesn’t need to be involved in this case.” None of them really needed to be involved. Just him and Evans and whoever the hell this mystery contact was. He glanced at the clock. Four and a half hours. Just four and a half hours before he could meet his contact and start up the nasty game he and Evans hadn’t quite finished.

“What do I not know?” Simon asked. He looked around the table, studying every man there. “I obviously am the only one not in on the joke.”

“It wasn’t a joke, asshole,” Adam said. “And Eve should be here. She has a right to know if the man who raped and brutalized her is back in the States.”

“Eve isn’t coming anywhere close to this case,” Alex stated flatly. “And if I get even a hint that Evans is close to us, she’ll be on her way to a safe house and under twenty-four seven cover.”

“Ah, no, not a joke at all.” Simon closed the folder. “I assume this is of absolutely no use. It’s going to be sanitized. I’ll research it myself. I’m rather surprised they allowed you to stay in charge.”

Simon was right about the file. He’d sanitized the thing because he couldn’t stand the thought of anyone knowing what had happened. The Bureau had kept things very quiet and the press had only gotten the merest hints of what his wife had to go through. They had enough other evidence on Evans to burn the fucker five times over.

“I was taken off the case, but I didn’t stop working,” Alex admitted. The Bureau had granted him a leave of absence, but he’d simply used it to track down Evans. He often wondered if Warren resented him for that. Warren Petty had taken over for Alex, but Alex had gotten the arrest.

“Do you think he’s going to come after her again?” Simon asked.

He lived in terror of that very thing happening. He dreamed at night of her being gone and the days that passed until she’d been discarded like a used up tissue, tossed on the side of the road in the middle of the night. She’d had to make her way to a gas station, her body naked against the snow and frost.

Had Evans intended for her to live? Alex thought he had. Eve was supposed to be a reminder of everything Alex had done wrong, of how much he’d lost and how much more powerful Michael Evans was.

Don’t push him this way, Alex. Keep this private. If you go to the press, I think he’ll lash out and he’ll strike at you.

He could still see her eyes pleading with him to change his plans, but he’d known what he was doing. He’d known he could take Evans down.

But Evans hadn’t come for him. Oh, no. That would have been too easy.

“I don’t think he’s coming after Eve. I have no evidence that he would. It’s been almost six years since he had any contact with her, and we all know damn well that he likes to play with his prey.” Ian stood up, turning on the lights and flooding the room.  “There’s also the fact that they’ve divorced. That had to give Evans an enormous amount of pleasure, and I’m sure he knows that it happened. I’m sure he kept track of you after he fled the States. But when you left the FBI, you very likely went off his radar. A man like Evans would no longer consider Alex to be a real threat. And he wouldn’t care about Eve at all at this point.”

Alex couldn’t take that chance.

“I want her kept out of this. It’s why I didn’t contact Li. Li is close to Eve. He would tell her,” Alex admitted. He wasn’t bringing Eve into this. The less she knew the better off they all would be. He couldn’t take her back into that hellhole. He couldn’t.

And he also couldn’t allow anyone else to handle this.

“Why do you think he’s surfaced?” Jake asked.

“I received an e-mail from a woman named Kristen six weeks ago. According to the e-mail, she’s an investigative reporter and she’s been tracking Evans since his jailbreak. I’m supposed to meet her later this morning. It’s a public venue. Right out in the open.” The woman in the e-mail had insisted on it. He’d been told flatly that if she saw someone other than him, she would walk away. He couldn’t let that happen. “I need someone to have eyes on Eve while I make contact. I can’t take the chance that this is his way of getting at her.”

“I’ll keep eyes on Eve, and Jake and Adam can handle your backup,” Ian stated.

This was precisely why he hadn’t wanted to have this little session. “I can’t. If she sees anyone but me, she’ll run. That e-mail was very plain. She will deal with me and only me. I don’t know what she looks like. I have no idea. I have to talk to this woman, Ian. I can’t let her slip past me. The meet up is totally public. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“She won’t know we’re there,” Jake promised. “Believe it or not, we’ve done this a time or two.”

“You two handle close cover. I’m the shadow. I’m the expert.” He was damn fine at blending into the shadows. It was a complete reversal of the first ten years of his career. He’d been the FBI’s golden boy, a shining star. The last five years he’d made a goal of never sticking out, always being the behind-the-scenes guy. He’d become a ghost, excellent at watching and waiting in the wings and almost never acting.

“I think I’m fairly decent at distance coverage,” Ian said with a frown. He’d been a long-term CIA operative. He knew distance cover. “Jake and Adam can handle Eve and I’ll back you up.”

There was only one problem with that.

“No. You’re too conspicuous. I can’t risk it.”

“Could we clear the room, guys?” Ian crossed his arms over his massive chest and started to pace.

The guys were out in a flash, Adam giving him the evil eye. Yeah, he was on Team Eve for sure.

Ian stopped in front of the window, pulling the blinds open and staring out at the early morning light. The city was starting to wake up, pinks and purples on the edge of the horizon. There were tall buildings framing the distance, the city a massive landscape in front of him, like a watercolor painting, so beautiful and slightly unreal.

He remembered one perfect day. Hawaii. He and Eve had gone to Kauai on their honeymoon, and they hadn’t slept at all one night. He’d taken her out to the beach and made love to her in the waves, and they had sat there and watched the sky come alive—nature’s great show. He could remember the way she felt in his arms, her back to his chest as they watched the sunrise. The whole world had been alive then, full of promise. They had been young. So fucking young. Strong.

Neither of them had known how broken they could be, how easy it was to take a life and snap it like a twig until nothing remained but meaningless pieces. 

“What are you doing, Alex?” Ian asked, not bothering to turn around.

That should be plain. “I’m trying to catch a killer.”

Ian’s shoulders slumped forward as though that was the last thing he’d wanted to hear. “You’re trying to correct a mistake, but you’re making the same one again.”

Frustration welled. Fuck, yeah, he was trying to correct a mistake. It had been the mistake of a lifetime. Of course he wanted to correct it. “I’m not going to let him get close to her again, man. You can’t think I would ever let that happen, but you, of all people, should know damn well that I can’t just let this go.”

How was he supposed to sit around knowing Evans was out there? He’d spent the last several years of his life following leads down every damn rabbit hole he could. He’d wasted countless hours talking to people who said they’d seen him, spending money on witnesses who led to nowhere. This could be the same thing all over again, but he had to keep trying. He would stop trying when he was fucking dead.

“That’s not the mistake you’re making.” Ian finally turned around, leaning back against the window and looking like he hadn’t slept in days. He’d been this way ever since they’d gotten back from London, as though just being in that city again had aged him, forcing him to remember the wife he’d lost.

“Going after Evans is the mistake? You think I can’t take him down? My mistake the first time was pure arrogance, Ian. Trust me. I was humbled. I’m not looking for glory this time.” He’d been trying to make a life for himself and Eve and fucking everything up because he didn’t believe he could be wrong. He’d been on a fast track, but now he knew how fast the worm turned.

“No, this time you’re looking for revenge.”

Yes. He wanted revenge. He felt his jaw tighten, his vision focus in. “For Eve.”

Ian’s eyes narrowed. “Really? Are you sure about that?”

He was sure, and he fucking well deserved revenge. Evans had torn them apart. “How can you say that? You’ve known me for twenty-five freaking years. How can you question me like this? You don’t have to help me. I’ll take a leave of absence. Maybe that’ll make it easier on everyone.”

It would be for the best anyway. He’d only let Ian know because they were family. They had a deal, him and Ian. They’d had it since they were kids growing up in the same low-rent trailer park with exactly two ways out—prison or the US military. Ian had stayed in the Army and Alex had gotten out the minute they would pay for his college. The friendship had survived years and distance.

The deal was simple. They didn’t go off half-cocked until the other knew what kind of shit was going down. Ian would watch out for Eve. Hell, if anything happened, Ian would watch out for her for the rest of her life. They had that deal, too. Ian watched Eve and Alex took care of Sean and now Grace and Carys. God, Sean had a kid.

How was he almost forty and single, with no prospect of a family on the horizon?

A ghostly image on the wall answered the question. The lights were on, but he could still see Michael Evans grinning at the camera.

He couldn’t fix his problems with Eve. He’d ruined her life. He’d been directly responsible for all that pain. Days. She’d spent days with that monster, and Alex would spend a lifetime trying to make it up to her.

Ian’s voice broke through his thoughts. “I wasn’t talking about going after Evans. I was talking about leaving Eve out of it.”

Alex felt his eyes go wide. “You can’t possibly expect that I would bring Eve into this. You of all people should know how dangerous it is to have your wife involved in a case.”

He wanted to take the words back the instant he said them. Ian didn’t move an inch. There was nothing in his stance that let Alex know he’d hit him hard except his skin paled. They never talked about the woman Ian had married and lost five years before.

“Charlotte has nothing to do with this. And she was always involved in that particular case. Hell, I was her case, and she did a spectacular fucking job. I laugh a little at the irony since her job was to fuck me. Charlotte married me knowing exactly how dangerous the job was, and she got burned. Eve, on the other hand, was perfectly innocent. If anyone deserves revenge, it’s Eve, and you want to take that from her now, too.”

Alex placed his hands on the conference table, palms down, just trying to hold on. “How can you say that? I was her husband. It was my job to protect her.”

“And you couldn’t possibly have known that the man you were tracking would come after your wife.” Logic. Ian loved to come after him with logic, but Alex knew the truth.

He should have fucking known. He should have read Eve’s damn case study, but he’d been so sure that he was right, that he couldn’t possibly be wrong. “Yeah, well, if I’d paid any attention to Eve’s profile, I would have. She knew. But I was far too smart. I thought I had the fucker down.”

“And you didn’t,” Ian agreed. “And Eve paid the price and she continues to pay it every single day because neither one of you can let go for a second.”

“If putting Michael Evans back where he belongs gives her a minute of peace, I’m going to do it. I’m her husband. I have to do this for her.”

Ian shook his head, his eyes grim. “You’re not her husband anymore, Alex.”

“Fine, then I’m her Dom.”

“Are you? You don’t act like it.”

Alex felt his back get tight, like a dog that just figured out he was about to get kicked. “Wow. Do you have something to say to me? Don’t fucking pussyfoot around, brother. You want to call my rights into question? You want to take a look at my contract?”

He hated the fact that all he had left with Eve was a cold contract between them, one they’d renewed every year for five years now. Ian knew damn well what was in that contract because he was the one Eve had turned to when she’d asked for it. A contract that delineated everything he was allowed to do, everything he couldn’t do, everything that sat between them. A contract that allowed sex but not love, discipline but no compassion.

Life without the possibility of parole.

“That contract is everything that’s wrong between you and yet you just keep signing it, man.”

Because if he didn’t, he was pretty sure Eve would drift away from him, perhaps even find another Dom. He couldn’t handle it. Just fucking couldn’t. He would very likely sign that contract for the rest of his life because no matter how angry he got, how alone he felt, he couldn’t live without her. “She needs to scene. It’s the only way she can cry. Do you think I haven’t been over this with her? Do you think she hasn’t been to therapy?”

His wife—ex-wife—was a brilliant psychologist. She’d done her time on a couch.

Guilt plagued him. He hadn’t taken the same time. Before the divorce, he’d cut out on counseling sessions, skipped on her dinners, spent nights away from home, and all in the name of catching Michael Evans.

“I know she’s been, but it hasn’t helped. Oh, Eve looks fine on the outside, but she hasn’t gotten back to her old self. She laughs, but it never reaches her eyes. She’ll let people hug her, but she doesn’t hug back. God, Alex, I remember when Eve was the touchiest, feeliest sub I’d ever met.”

“He raped her. He abused her. She can’t go back,” Alex said. “We can’t go back.”

“Then Evans wins. He did his job, and you should just hang it the fuck up. Why bother hunting the man down? You’re already dead. You just forgot to tell us to bury the fucking body, man.”

He thought seriously about putting his hands around his best friend’s throat, but he backed off. Ian couldn’t understand. None of them could. He should have done what he’d thought was best in the first place and just handled it on his own. “Whatever. I’m going to get ready to meet the contact.”

“You’re not going without backup. Take Jake and Adam and that’s an order.”

But Ian had forgotten one tiny truth. “You’re not my boss. You’re not my CO, and if you want me to walk, this is the way to get it done.”

He started for the door. There wasn’t anything left to say.

“Alex, please take Jake and Adam.”

Fuck. Ian almost never asked politely. “I can’t. If she spooks easily, I’ll lose the chance.”

“All right. Don’t you dare go in unarmed.”

Like he would do that. “I’m good.”

“Alex?”

When the fuck had Ian gotten so chatty? “Yeah?”

“She needs you. She needs you to be her Dom more than she needs someone to avenge her. She needs you to take the reins because she can’t let go of this on her own. She needs her husband.”

But he wasn’t her husband anymore. He was her part-time lover and full-time therapy session. He wondered if she even saw him now or if all she saw was how he’d failed her time and time again. Alex let the door close behind him.

Revenge was all he had left.

* * * *

Eve stopped at the front desk. Grace wasn’t around, but there was a massive bouquet of flowers taking up most of the space. Gorgeous calla lilies.

Eve whistled a little. Those must have cost a fortune. What the hell had Sean done?

And then she saw there was a card attached.

Ian Taggart

She rolled her eyes. Some sub was trying to get in good with the Master. Whoever it was, they were barking up the wrong tree. Flowers wouldn’t impress Ian. No. If you wanted to impress Ian Taggart, you better have a six-pack in your hand or a shiny new gun.

Those poor subs at Sanctum didn’t really have a chance with Ian. He needed a woman who could physically put him on his ass. She was pretty sure that was the only way to bring down the man. A woman who could outthink him, out manipulate him, outplay him. That was the only way to nab Big Tag.

“Eve, I thought you were going to breakfast with Liam.” Alex stood in the doorway of the conference room. His eyes widened on her, and he shifted the stack of folders from one hand to another.

And immediately Eve was suspicious. “I had some reports to file and some personality profiles to complete. Ian’s looking to hire some office personnel. Li is coming to pick me up in about twenty minutes.”

Alex nodded. “That’s good. Traffic is rough right now.”

Traffic was always miserable, but even if it had been light, she knew Alex would rather someone drove her. Not because she wasn’t a good driver, but Alex preferred that someone watch over her.

It just couldn’t be him.

Because she was stubborn and couldn’t find a way out of the corner she’d put them both in. 

He stood there staring at her. When he looked at her like that, like she was the only woman in the whole world, she wanted to walk into his arms and pretend like the last six years hadn’t happened.

“Was there a meeting I didn’t know about?” She tried to catch a glimpse of the name on his folders, but they were blank.

He moved them, sliding them under his arm. “I wanted to go over a few things with Ian. Just bouncing around some ideas I have on an open job.”

Work. They could talk about work. Sometimes she suspected they both came up with the thinnest of reasons to ask each other for advice. At least she knew she did. It was an excuse to be in the same room with him.

Do you need an excuse? You said you needed time. He gave you time. How long can this go on?

“Do you want to run it by me?”

He shook his head. “No. I think I can handle this one. What the hell did Sean do?”

He stepped up and looked at the flowers.

“They’re not for Grace,” she said.

“Phoebe? Phoebe is dating someone? Phoebe barely talks. I can’t imagine her dating someone.”

Phoebe Graham was the accounting girl. She typically hid in her office. She was terrified every time she found herself in a room with Ian or Alex. Sometimes Eve thought the only reason Phoebe had taken the job was because Ian had told her she was hired and she was afraid of not showing up for work. “Nope.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “Someone’s sending you flowers?”

Well, she was the only other woman in the office. It was a decent bet. “No. They’re for Ian.”

Alex laughed a little, his shoulders relaxing. “Should have sent him a six-pack.” He walked over and his free hand briefly touched the blooms. “They remind me of our wedding. We had white flowers, too.”

They had been all over the church. She’d stood at the end of the aisle and looked up. Alex and Ian and Sean had been giant predators dropped into a dainty white garden. She’d been so proud, so fascinated with her groom.

God, she still was.

Alex McKay was still the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. And lately, it was so much easier to forget all the reasons she had for keeping her emotional distance from him.

Unfortunately, she remembered another incident where she’d received white flowers. “I don’t like them now. They remind me of my hospital room.”

He’d filled her hospital room with white flowers, giving her gifts, but turning away from her.

“Eve,” Alex began. He cleared his throat. “I’ll make sure Ian gets them, though he’ll probably just throw them out.”

He picked up the vase and card, juggling them with his file folders.

“Do you want me to take the folders?”

He backed up. “No. I’m fine. You have a good time with Liam. Speak of the devil. Hey, man, how’s it going?”

She turned and sure enough, Liam O’Donnell was walking up behind her. He nodded Alex’s way. “Morning. Evie, are you ready to go?”

She nodded as she watched Alex struggle with everything he was carrying, but she didn’t offer to help again. He would just say no. He would rather drop everything than admit he needed help. She sighed and turned to Liam.

Twenty minutes later, Eve looked at Avery and wondered if she’d ever been that young and in love. Though Avery was only ten years younger, that was just a number. Avery’s innocence couldn’t be measured by years. It went deep into her soul. Avery had lost everything at a young age and still her eyes were bright as she turned to her husband.

She often wondered how Avery would have handled being in Eve’s position. Avery wouldn’t have broken the way Eve had. Avery likely would have walked away with a bruised body, but with her heart still capable of love. Avery, it seemed to Eve, was indestructible.

Eve was deeply aware of how fragile her own soul was.

“I want pancakes.” Avery set down the menu she’d been studying.

“You always want pancakes, girl. Ya never try anything else. Why do you waste your time looking at the menu?” Liam’s voice was gruff, but his eyes were lit with laughter. He loved his wife. The connection between them was a palpable thing. Li winked Eve’s way as he set down his own menu. “What about you, love? Are you trying something different?”

She never tried anything different. “No. I’ll stick with what I know.”

Half a grapefruit, two scrambled egg whites, whole-wheat toast, no butter. No indulgences for Eve St. James. Discipline. It was what her life had become. And now she could fit into those designer dresses that had been out of reach all those years ago because Alex liked to stuff her with chocolate and rich foods. He used to order in from the most decadent of restaurants and feed her while she sat in his lap and they cuddled.

“Order for me, will you?” Liam was pulling out his phone, checking the screen. “I have to take this. And for god’s sake, woman, order your own bacon this time. You always say you won’t eat it and then you steal mine.”

He brushed his lips across his wife’s as he scooted from the booth.

The waitress chose that moment to take the orders and refresh their coffee. When she was gone, Eve forced a smile on her face. Coffee. Her only real indulgence, well, besides all the BDSM and the soulless sex.

“How are you feeling?”

Avery smiled. “Good. This is actually a far easier pregnancy than my Maddie.”

Eve froze. Madison. Avery’s child. The one who died.

Avery’s hand came out, covering Eve’s. “It’s all right.”

That summed up Avery to a T. Avery had lost a child and she reached out to comfort Eve. Eve pulled back, reaching for her coffee mug. “I’m sorry. I’m always a little shocked that you can speak about her so easily.”

Loss was something to be hidden. God, she was glad she wasn’t her own patient.

Avery just gave her a gentle smile. “I miss my baby every day, but it would be wrong to pretend she didn’t exist. Do you know what Liam gave me as a housewarming gift when we bought our place here?”

She hadn’t been to their big house in North Dallas. She hated that part of town because it reminded her so much of the sleepy, upscale Virginia neighborhood she and Alex had moved into once they could afford it. Those houses were all lovely, with signs of life and children on every lawn. An overturned bike here, a massive fort there, a man washing his prized car in the driveway.

Her apartment was sterile. Lovely, but sterile. Rather like herself.

She shook her head. “No, but I suspect it wasn’t a houseplant.”

Avery’s eyes teared up. “He had a painter do a portrait of Madison from her baby pictures. Of Maddie and Brandon. He put it up next to the pictures of us from our wedding. He said it was because they were a part of our family, and he never wanted this baby to forget that he or she had a big sister once. And I cry when I look at that picture. I do. I cry when I think how I lost Maddie and my first husband, but I would dishonor them if I tried to forget. They were a real part of who I was, of who I am today. So I’ll talk about her because she’s still here with me. I would hate it if she wasn’t. Sometimes pain can be sweet if we let it. It can remind us of all the good things. Just because something bad happened, it shouldn’t erase the sweetness that came before it. Maddie died. But that doesn’t mean I can’t remember how she smelled when I held her against me, how she’d cuddle her little head to my breast. Brandon died, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about how funny he was and how he asked me to marry him, but only after he’d thrown up because I told him I was pregnant.” Avery laughed, the sound bright and happy. “It was not the most romantic of proposals.”

Eve couldn’t help it. Avery could be infectious. It was why she’d come to deeply enjoy these mornings with them. She’d always found it easy to be around Liam, but it was a joy to be around Avery. Avery made her wonder why she’d stopped hanging out with girlfriends. She used to love her girls’ nights out. Now she always came up with an excuse not to join Grace and Serena. “He really threw up?”

Avery nodded. “Oh, yes. We were only eighteen, and we’d only had sex once and it hadn’t been that great. We’d kind of gone back to holding hands because he’d been so embarrassed about it. And then whoops goes the pregnancy test. He was a little surprised. How did Alex ask you?”

Without even thinking about it, Eve snorted a little at the memory. It was the day he’d placed a delicate collar around her throat. He’d snicked the lock into place and then boldly told her that he wasn’t satisfied with just a collar. He wanted her to wear his ring, too. “He didn’t ask, the bastard. He told me I would marry him. Doms.”

“Nice. So you two were in a D/s relationship before you got married?”

“Oh, Alex was born a Dom. We met in college and Ian had already introduced him to the lifestyle.” God. What was she doing? She was gabbing like a schoolgirl, like a woman who was still married, telling her girlfriends how they met. Eve clammed up. She wasn’t a girl and she wasn’t like Avery. She cleared her throat. “But that’s a boring story. Did you find out if the baby’s a boy or a girl yet?”

“We won’t know for another couple of weeks,” Avery said, her eyes focused on Eve as though she was trying to decide just how far to push. “But it doesn’t matter. We’ll be happy either way. I heard Serena’s having a boy.”

Jake and Adam had done nothing but talk about their future son. Everyone was moving on with their lives. It was just she and Alex and Ian who were stuck, and Ian couldn’t help it. He hadn’t found the right woman.

Eve knew she’d found the right man. Alex was still here. He was still in her bed some nights. She could reach for him, hold him tight.

Lately she’d been wondering if they shouldn’t try again. Lately the memories had started to fade and she found herself reaching for Alex again. She’d started remembering things fondly. Their wedding day. She’d found photos in a box in her closet, and she’d stared at them for the longest time, thinking how handsome he’d been. He didn’t smile in the pictures. No, not Alex McKay. He smirked in the sweetest way, those upturned lips a testament to how satisfied he’d been with the day. In the picture she’d finally placed on one of the bookcases in her office, Ian and Sean had been standing beside Alex, all three of them so arrogant she had to laugh.

And her momma and dad had been beaming out.

It couldn’t hurt to pull that old picture out, she’d told herself. It was just a nice memory. But placing that picture where she could see it had her thinking.

Hell, Avery and Liam had her thinking.

What if they could start over?

“How long did it take you after Brandon died to want to try again?” The question was out before she could really think it through, and she wished immediately that she could take it back. It was rude. It was intrusive. “I am so sorry. We’re not in a therapy session. That was uncalled for.”

Avery reached out again. Eve got the feeling she would just keep right on trying even after Eve pushed her away, so she should just give in, let Avery hold her hand. “Hey, I know you’re a professional, but you should remember that sometimes friends are therapy, too. And it was a long time. I had a lot to work through. I had a lot of rage and anger and bitterness.”

Somehow she couldn’t see Avery being bitter for a second.

Avery seemed to sense what she was thinking. “Hey, I’m human, too. I hated the world for a while, but one day I woke up and I realized I didn’t want to live my life that way. I had to make a choice. I could be angry about the past or I could try to find a future. It sounds simple.”

Eve shook her head, surprised at how emotional she was getting. She never cried, but the tears were right there, threatening and somehow sweet. “No. It’s not simple at all.”

It was a decision she had yet to make.

“A divorce can be like a death,” Avery said gently.

Eve took a long breath. “It wasn’t the divorce that hurt me. I mean, it did, but something else happened and I don’t think I’ve gotten over it.” That was a lie. She knew damn well she hadn’t gotten over it. “I’ve done all the therapy, but I’m just now starting to think that I want to move on with my life.”

Her grieving process had been long and painful for them both, but she was finally at the point where she might be able to accept that Alex had changed. He’d been so distant after Michael Evans had nearly killed her. He’d said all the right things. He’d told her he loved her and that nothing had changed, but he’d left her alone when she needed him most. He’d gotten obsessed with revenge.

“I need to make a choice. I need to try again or let Alex go.” Saying it out loud was a huge weight off her chest. God, she actually felt lighter.

“Are you joking, Evie?” Liam asked. Damn. She hadn’t heard him return. He slid into the booth, placing his hand over Avery’s and hers, lending his support. “Because you can’t imagine how much better we would all feel if you were serious. I worry about you, girl.”

It had been years since she’d led a real therapy session. Not since her college days. She’d left counseling for profiling, but she hadn’t forgotten one truth about therapy. Sometimes it took the right words to reach a person. A therapist could say the same thing a hundred different ways, but only one of them would reach inside the subject and plant a seed. It was why a therapist shouldn’t give up.

She thought about her wedding day picture. What did she owe that girl in the picture? What did she owe the Eve she had been? What did she owe her parents, who still loved her?

What did she owe the husband she’d loved from the moment she’d met him?

“I want to try. Li, do you think you could help me with something? I want to surprise Alex at Sanctum tonight. I think I might want to renegotiate that contract of ours.”

Liam smiled and promised to help as the waitress brought their food.

Avery, who had promised she didn’t want bacon, stole her husband’s.

And Eve thought about the future with a smile on her face for once.

Copyright Lexi Blake 2013